Criminal Mischief: The Art and Science of Crime Fiction: Episode #46: The Opening Scene
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Your opening scene carries a heavy load. It must hook the reader, introduce the story question—and often the protagonist/antagonist, reveal the setting/story world, evoke emotion in the reader, and reveal the voice and tone of the story. That’s a lot of work, and pressure on the writer.
Why is the opening scene so important?
1—It must do all or most of the above
2—It’s all most people will ever read—-unless it’s compelling
3—It’s what grabs the attention of agents and editors
4—It’s you first—and only—chance to make a good impression
Things you must do in the first few pages:
Hook the reader
Introduce an interesting character or situation
Ask the story question
Set the tone and voice
Introduce the story world
Hints at what’s to come
Make the reader care, or at least curious
A Few Openings:
Red Dragon–Thomas Harris
Will Graham sat Crawford down at a picnic table between the house and the ocean and gave him a glass of iced tea.
Jack Crawford looked at the pleasant old house, salt-silvered wood in the clear light. “I should have caught you in Marathon when you got off work,” he said. “You don’t want to talk about it here.”
“I don’t want to talk about anywhere, Jack. You’ve got to talk about it, so let’s have it. Just don’t get out any pictures. If you brought pictures, leave them in the briefcase — Molly and Willy will be back soon.”
“How much do you know?”
“What was in the Miami Herald and the Times,” Graham said. “Two families killed in their houses a month apart. Birmingham and Atlanta. The circumstances were similar.”
“Not similar. The same.”
“How many confessions so far?”
“Eighty-six when I called this afternoon,” Crawford said. “Cranks. None of them knew details. He smashes the mirrors and uses the pieces. None of them knew that.”
The Secret History—Donna Tartt
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history – state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston.
The Concrete Blonde—Michael Connelly
The house in Silverlake was dark, its windows as empty as a dead man’s eyes. It was an old California Craftsman with a full front porch and two dormer windows set on the long slope of the roof. But no light shone behind the glass, not even from above the doorway. Instead, the house cast a foreboding darkness about it that not even the glow from the streetlight could penetrate. A man could be standing there on the porch and Bosch knew he probably wouldn’t be able to see him.
“You sure this is it?” he asked her.
“Not the house,” she said. “Behind it. The garage. Pull up so you can see down the drive.”
Bosch tapped the gas pedal and the Caprice moved forward and crossed the entrance to the driveway.
“There,” she said.
Bosch stopped the car. There was a garage behind the house with an apartment above it. Wooden staircase up the side, light over the door. Two windows, lights on inside.
“Okay,” Bosch said.
They stared at the garage for several moments. Bosch didn’t know what he expected to see. Maybe nothing. The whore’s perfume was filling the car and he rolled his window down. He didn’t know whether to trust her claim or not. The one thing he knew he couldn’t do was call for backup. He hadn’t brought a rover with him and the car was not equipped with a phone.
“What are you going to – – there he goes!” she said urgently.
Bosch had seen it, the shadow of a figure crossing behind the smaller window. The bathroom, he guessed.
“He’s in the bathroom,” she said. “That’s where I saw all the stuff.”
Bosch looked away from the window and at her.
“I, uh, checked the cabinet. You know, when I was in there. Just looking to see what he had. A girl has to be careful. And I saw all the stuff. Makeup shit. You know, mascara, lipsticks, compacts and stuff. That’s how I figured it was him. He used all that stuff to paint ‘em when he was done, you know, killing them.”
Run To Ground–D. P. Lyle
“I can still smell him.” Martha Foster inhaled deeply and closed her eyes.
Tim stood just inside the doorway and looked down at his wife. She sat on the edge of their son’s bed, eyes moist, chin trembling, as were the fingers that clutched the navy-blue Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt to her chest. It had been Steven’s favorite. He had slept in it every night the first month, until Martha finally pried it away long enough to run it through the wash.
Behind her, a dozen photos of Steven lay scattered across the blue comforter. A proud Steven in his first baseball uniform. A seven-year-old Steven, grinning, upper left front tooth missing, soft freckles over his nose, buzz-cut hair, a blue swimming ribbon dangling around his neck. A playful Steven, sitting next to Martha at the backyard picnic table, face screwed into a goofy expression, smoke from the Weber BBQ rising behind them. Tim remembered the day he snapped the picture. Labor Day weekend. Just six months before that day. He squeezed back his own tears and swallowed hard.
Martha shifted her weight and twisted toward the photos. She laid the sweatshirt aside and reached out, lightly touching an image of Steven’s face. The trembling of her delicate fingers increased. She said nothing for a moment and then, “I’m taking these.”
Tim walked to where she sat and pulled her to him, her cheek nestling against his chest, her tears soaking through his tee shirt. He kissed the top of her head.
“He’s gone,” Martha said. “Everything’s gone. Or will be.”